UK Labour party loses to Tories in Copeland byelection
Labour MPs privately blame Corbyn and his perceived hostility to the nuclear industry
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his home in north London after the Conservatives won a historic by-election victory in Copeland. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire
The UK Labour party suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Conservative party in Copeland, a heartland seat dominated by the party since 1935, just half an hour after seeing off Ukip leader Paul Nuttall in a bitter battle for Stoke Central.
Many Labour MPs were privately blaming Corbyn, and in particular his perceived hostility to the nuclear industry, for the loss of the Cumbrian seat, vacated by the resignation of Jamie Reed to work for Sellafield, the nucelar plant that is the biggest local employer.
The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, said the result in Copeland was “really disappointing” and the party would “learn lessons”, but he hit out at former leader Tony Blair for criticising Labour just days before the byelections; and insisted Corbyn had no intention of stepping aside.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, McDonnell said: “There’s mixed views on Jeremy; the issue for me is actually, he is a different type of leader; he is that sort of person who does listen, is decent and honest and brings people together.
“He’s not the kind of macho leader we’ve had in the past, and that’s why we’ve had the disasters that we’ve had. He is not someone who doesn’t recognise that our party now needs to rebuild itself from the grassroots in those communities like Copeland.”
Labour’s candidate in Copeland, Gillian Troughton, was defeated by the Conservatives’ Trudy Harrison, marking the first time a governing party has taken a seat from another party in a byelection in 35 years.
Nuttall’s defeat in Stoke raised doubts about the UK leader’s ambition to replace Labour as the voice of the working classes and will leave many questioning the party’s relevance, given its share of the vote shrank in Copeland.
Both results were good news for Theresa May’s Conservative party, which has made a deliberate pitch for traditional Labour voters by focusing on “just about managing” families.
‘Let down by political establishment’
It also sought to see off Ukip by promising a “red, white and blue Brexit”, prioritising immigration control.
Gaining Copeland suggests the Tories could make inroads into areas previously considered safe Labour territory.
While the Conservatives could not push Ukip into third place in Stoke, as they had hoped, there was a swing away from Nuttall’s party that benefited the Tories and will boost confidence at No 10 that Ukip can be neutralised.
Corbyn struck a sombre note in a statement after the results were declared, heralding the Stoke victory as a “decisive rejection” of Ukip’s values.
“But our message was not enough to win through in Copeland,” he said.
“In both campaigns, Labour listened to thousands of voters on the doorstep. Both constituencies, like so many in Britain, have been let down by the political establishment.
“To win power to rebuild and transform Britain, Labour will go further to reconnect with voters, and break with the failed political consensus.”
Labour MPs are expected to stay silent despite concerns about Corbyn’s leadership, fearing that a fresh outbreak of infighting would only inflict further damage on the party’s brand.
Tory campaigners made much of an ITV Borders television interview by Corbyn at the end of January in which he failed four times to say he supported
Moorside, a multibillion-pound nuclear plant planned to be built next to Sellafield.
Labour’s campaign focused heavily on Tory-backed plans to close the maternity unit at the new West Cumberland hospital, meaning the nearest service will be an hour-long drive away in Carlisle.
Troughton, a borough councillor, retired doctor and St John ambulance driver who voted against Corbyn in the last leadership contest, consistently claimed the hospital was the “number one issue on the doorstep”.